GeekTech: Super-Easy Online Backups

If you have valuable data on your PC--whether documents, photos, music, video, or whatever--then you should back it up. And if you don't back it up, well then you don't get to whine when a dead hard drive, nasty virus, or exploding notebook battery robs you of that data.

You can tell Carbonite exactly what you want to back up--from a single file to your desktop and your My Documents folder.
You can tell Carbonite exactly what you want to back up--from a single file to your desktop and your My Documents folder.
Typically, this is the point where a PC World backup article would spend a great deal of time explaining your numerous hardware and software backup options.

But this is GeekTech, and I'm going to cut to the chase: If you need to back up your PC, head over to Carbonite.com. Download the free software, sign up for the company's online PC backup service, and be done with it.

There, wasn't that easy?

Online Backup Done Well

I realize that online backup services aren't everybody's cup of tea. Traditionally they've been too kludgy, too pricey, and too limited. And while occasionally somebody brings something new and cool to the game (as Streamload did with its content-sharing features), few actually make backing up as easy as it should be.

Carbonite clearly explains how the backup process works.
Carbonite clearly explains how the backup process works.
What I like about Carbonite is that you set it up once, and after that it just works. You don't have to remember to push a button, launch a program, or leave the PC running every Friday night between midnight and 2 a.m. to make sure your data is safe. And unlike a local external hard drive, which is at risk if something catastrophic happens--a house fire, for example--Carbonite keeps your data off site, where it's safe.

It works like this: You download the Carbonite software and install it on your PC. By default the software backs up files on your desktop and in your My Documents folder. But you can tell it exactly what to back up, from one file to every piece of data on your PC (except system files and apps).

Once you've completed the setup, Carbonite goes about backing up those files online. It works in the background and you don't have to keep checking it, which is good because that initial backup takes a long time--even with a broadband connection. During my initial tests Carbonite took between 12 and 24 hours to back up 1246 files on my notebook (about 2GB of data).

Recently I decided to use the service to back up my desktop as well, which has all of my must-save photos, music, and other important files. It has been ten days since I signed up, and Carbonite says it has backed up about 18GB of data (5947 files)--and there's still more than 25GB left to go (another 2273 files) to complete the job.

In fact, if I have one complaint about Carbonite, it's that the service works so hard to stay out of your way that it ends up slowing itself down. I'd like to see a setting that maximizes the speed of that initial upload to get the job done faster.

Locked or Not?

Carbonite lets you easily monitor the initial backup process (and subsequent incremental backups) via the requisite icon in your Windows system tray. A green lock means all of your stuff is backed up; a yellow one means something is awaiting backup; and if the lock is red, you need to deal with a problem.

You can monitor your backup from Carbonite's Web site.
You can monitor your backup from Carbonite's Web site.
To uncover the problem, you can access your Carbonite files through the Web site, or you can click My Computer, where the Carbonite icon will appear as another drive. Click through to the document in question and with a right-click you can tell Carbonite to a) restore the file, b) restore it to a new location, or c) refrain from backing up the file in the future. Finally, and best of all, Carbonite keeps an eye on your folders: Every time you change an existing file or create a new one, Carbonite puts that document in the queue for backup. While the initial backup takes some time, subsequent backups are incremental and speedy. And if you want to make sure a new document gets the Carbonite treatment right away, you can right-click it and move it to the front of the line.

Performance Issues?

Performance-minded readers may not like the idea of yet another program running in the background on their PC, but CEO and founder David Friend assures me that even when Carbonite is hard at work, it uses very little processing power and memory. Best of all, it's at work only when you're not. Basically, when the software detects a break in the action (no keyboard or mouse activity), it backs up data; when you resume, it stops.

And while Carbonite typically uses only part of your Internet bandwidth at any given time, you can further dial back its bandwidth usage to make sure it doesn't impact the performance of sensitive apps like VoIP.

I didn't notice any performance hit or Internet connectivity lag during my testing. I didn't try using VoIP, but I've been ripping CDs and encoding using various codecs, and the software didn't seem to slow down that chore.

In addition to making sure that Carbonite's software doesn't negatively impact your day-to-day computing, the company has gone to great lengths to make sure your data is always secure, Friend says. That means it is heavily encrypted before it leaves your PC.

And Carbonite has no interest in mining that data in order to point relevant advertisers in your direction, Friend says. "We don't want to see what is in your files; we have no interest in that whatsoever. We're not sifting through data like Google."

As with most good Internet-based services, you can try Carbonite for free for the first 15 days. After that you need to pony up fees for one year ($50) or two years ($90) of access to the service.

The best part, though, is that for fewer than $5 per month you can back up as much content as you want. There's no limit to the amount of data you can upload to the service.

Unlimited Space

Space limitation is one of the areas where other online backup providers have fallen down in the past, Friend says. When you limit the amount of storage space available, people have to make decisions about what to back up and what not to back up, he says.

With the all-you-can eat approach, people don't have to pick and choose, he says. "We lose money on some customers--if you back up 100GB we may lose a little money--but most people don't have that much data."

After using the service for some time, I can heartily recommend it. I'd like to see a faster first upload, but the bottom line is that Carbonite makes it exceptionally easy to initiate and keep up-to-date backups of your important files.

If you've been putting off settling on a backup strategy for all of the usual reasons--it's too slow/confusing/expensive--you're now out of excuses. So get on with it, already.

On an unrelated topic, Tom Mainelli would like to tell Apple that its latest version of iTunes is a buggy mess. Agree? Disagree? You can drop him a line.

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